Long dog walks present opportunities for a West Point resident to teach children about responsible animal ownership.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
When Neely Bryan talks about dogs, chances are she’ll likely not be oohing and aahing about their cuddly cuteness. Oh, that’s part of her pup passion, but her primary concern is always for their well-being. And make no mistake, when she is speaking out for the canine population of West Point, Mississippi, and beyond, listeners will see much more than a beautiful young woman. They’ll meet a fierce and fiery advocate for all animals, but especially dogs.
Since October 2019, the 43-year-old Bryan has been director of the West Point Clay County Animal Shelter.
She’s quite happy to have somehow acquired the title of “crazy dog lady,” and proudly introduces herself as such to those with whom she comes in contact.
Bryan moved to West Point a little more than five years ago with her husband, Cole, and their beloved dog, Bronx.
“Bronx is our son wearing a dog suit,” Bryan said. “He is one of those once-in-a-lifetime dogs.”
Bronx, a pit bull, was found chained and starving in the Bronx, New York, where the Bryans lived before eventually moving to Cole’s hometown of West Point. While Neely has a particular passion for pits, it’s clear she adores dogs of every persuasion. Bryan blames this on her parents, Betsy Boone Bates and the late Bobby Bates.
“I came out of the womb like this,” Bryan said. “Both my parents picked up anything abandoned on the side of the road. And in Tennessee, we lived on a farm. Whatever Mom brought home got spayed or neutered before it became a part of our family. I am hard-wired to spay and neuter. And I’m grateful for that; it’s the only way.”
While “spay and neuter” tops Bryan’s registry of rules for responsible animal ownership, another edict fights for first place: “It is not natural for dogs to be chained and alone.”
When she was new to West Point, Bryan noticed a pit chained outside a house during her lengthy daily walks with Bronx. Bothered by the dog’s plight, Bryan knocked on the door.
“Can I walk your dog?” Bryan asked whoever answered. In her neighborhood and beyond, this became a common practice for Bryan. She’d ask if she could take chained pits on long walks, and she’d also turn the walks into teachable moments for the children who began accompanying her on these West Point walks.
“The kids would find me other dogs to walk,” Bryan said. “I averaged 30,000 steps a day for two years from walking dogs, and I always had kids with me. These kids became my family.”
Several times while walking, Bryan and her young friends came across bodies of animals that had been hit by cars. Together, they’d bury the animals, and Bryan would talk about the importance of having respect for all living things. They’d share pizza with the Bryans, and she drove several of the neighborhood kids to school for a couple of years. In their time together, she talked not only about caring for animals but other life lessons.
“We’d talk about gratitude and about breaking cycles,” she said. “I’d tell them to find what they liked about people and then emulate those things. They’d often say, ‘Miss Neely, we’re cycle breakers.’”
With the help of Sweet Paws Rescue in Boston, Bryan helped build fences for some of the dogs she began walking.
“Even if my coming along and walking their dogs makes someone realize there is a dog in their yard or it creates a ripple of awareness, that’s made it all worthwhile,” Bryan said.
Serving as director of the local shelter keeps Bryan busy these days, but she can still be seen taking Bronx and Willow for their daily 3-mile walks. Willow, also a pit, is a rescued bait dog who now has a home with the Bryans. A third Bryan rescue, Courtney, is a hound who spent two and a half years at the shelter.
For Bryan, animals have long been a source of great joy.
“But animals are also my greatest source of suffering,” she said. “I have to stay busy working to save them doing everything I possibly can. It’s just who I am.”